By Hussein Ibish
Neoconservative hawks have said time and again that they’d like the U.S. government to use the war in Iraq as the starting point in a campaign completely to reshape the Middle East. In that light, recent comments from President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld threatening Syria are exceptionally alarming.
Many Americans supported the war in Iraq because they genuinely believed it would make our country safer and bring freedom to a people living under brutal tyranny. They never signed on to an agenda that amounts, as former CIA director James Woolsey puts it, to “World War IV.”
The neocons have wasted no time in laying down the basic charges that would form the case for an attack against their next target of opportunity: Syria. First, Syria is accused of cooperating with Iraq by allowing weapons to be smuggled back and forth across the border during the war and of harboring former Iraqi officials. No evidence has been presented on either of these counts, but even if true, they would hardly form a legitimate cause for war. Under no circumstances could one argue that the Syrian and Iraqi governments have been allies during the past 25 years. The antagonism between these two intense Baathist rivals has been profound, as witnessed by Syria’s participation in the first Gulf War in 1991 on the American side.
Obviously, if indeed any arms were sent or smuggled to Iraq through Syria in recent weeks, they had no impact on the conflict or its outcome. And if former Iraqi officials either went to or through Syria, it does not take a historian to recall the legion of deposed despots whose flight was facilitated by ourselves or our allies.
Second, Syria is charged with supporting terrorist organizations. This is essentially an Israeli accusation adopted wholesale by our government to provide leverage for Israel in negotiations with Syria. American officials have made it clear for years that Syria’s presence on the list of “state sponsors of terrorism” would be ended immediately upon the signing of an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty.
More importantly, while Israel has its own agenda, Syria can and has been an extremely helpful partner in the war against al-Qaeda, whose ultrareligious agenda is not tolerated by Damascus. American officials have acknowledged that Syrian help was vital in thwarting a number of dangerous al-Qaeda plots to kill large numbers of American troops in the Middle East. This sort of cooperation needs to be cultivated.
Third, Syria is accused, most recently by President Bush, of having chemical weapons. This may or may not be the case, but the absence of any sign of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction ought to give everyone some pause.
Scores of countries possess nonconventional weapons of some kind or other. Are all such countries now subject to bullying and possible unprovoked attack? Iraq, we were repeatedly told, was a special case because it had used these weapons in the past and had been ordered to renounce them by the United Nations Security Council. Neither of these things applies to Syria. Moreover, it is absurd to make an issue out of Syria’s alleged chemical weapons when its immediate neighbor Israel is a major nuclear power.
Fourth, Syria is charged with occupying Lebanon, usually by people who have no objection to Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. To them, any comparison between these two situations is odious. Israel has been declared the “occupying power” in the Palestinian territories by the Security Council on numerous occasions. Syria’s presence in Lebanon, however problematic, is pursuant to the American-brokered Taiff agreements, several Arab League declarations, and the stated wishes of the recognized government of Lebanon.
As a person born and raised in Beirut, I share the misgivings many Lebanese feel about Syria’s often heavy-handed presence in that country. And that presence may soon outlive its usefulness in the rest of the country, as it has in Beirut, where no Syrian troops remain. That said, American antagonism to Syria does nothing whatever to help the Lebanese.
Fifth, it is observed that Syria is a dictatorship, and certainly the Syrian people suffer from a notable lack of democracy in a one-party state. Real reforms are clearly in order, as in almost all Arab states, but cannot come at the point of a gun.
There is no comparison between the authoritarian government in Syria and the horrors of Saddam’s Iraq. It is certainly not more oppressive than many of our staunch allies in the Gulf. We have yet to see a single result of American foreign policy promoting any form of democracy in the Arab world. None of these charges, or even all of them taken together, amount to a coherent argument in favor of American belligerence toward Syria. Such recklessness does nothing to promote the interests of the American people, who have no need and no taste for anyone’s schemes to launch World War IV.